A History of Koi in Mythology [Updated]

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A History of Koi Fish in Mythology, Myth & Legend [Updated]

Koi fish feeding in a pond
Koi come in many colorful varieties and are one of the most prized species in the world. Arden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A revered subject in legends that predate written history, the ‘koi’ has grown to be one of the most prized fish species in the world. The prevalence of koi carp goes beyond their attractiveness as an ornamental fish and is founded on cultural symbolism throughout Far East Asia.

Today, koi come in many colorful varieties and have forms that are often explored through painting, sculpture, literature, and design. Koi in ponds are believed to bring good fortune, luck, prosperity, and longevity to those who stop and take notice of this fish’s gentle nature. Thus, it’s no mystery why this fish has just about taken over the pond scene everywhere.

The colorful varieties of koi that we are more familiar with today are taxonomically classified as Cyprinus rubrofuscus or Amur carp. In Japan, they are commonly called ‘nishikigoi’ and are symbolic of friendship and love.

Initially bred as a source of food, koi carp were raised in rice paddies and first popularized in China. Records show that they were introduced there as early as 2,000 years ago. Later, Chinese invaders introduced this fish to Japan where farmers began to collect and systematically breed varieties for their brilliant colors and patterns. This practice, which began in the 1800s, has led to the creation of more than a hundred varieties sold all over the world today.


A Golden Dragon in Chinese Mythology (Koi Dragon Meaning)

Hukou Waterfall, a part of the Yellow River in China
The koi features in many mythological stories about bodies of freshwater, like the Yellow River pictured above. Leruswing, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This graceful fish is deeply entrenched in Chinese mythology, especially in stories about bodies of freshwater, such as the Yellow River. One ancient legend tells the tale of koi swimming in this very river. They are depicted as a school of golden fish, which shimmer in the sunlit water as they swim upward against a strong current. Eventually, the determined koi reach the end of the river and encounter a waterfall. Some koi, deterred by the force of the waterfall, turn back and choose to be carried away by the river’s current. The remaining fish are steadfast in their efforts to make it atop the waterfall, and so are said to have tried and tried again by leaping out of the water. Despite their best attempts, none were successful that day, yet they did manage to catch the attention of powerful demons.

These demons decided to make a sham of the koi’s best efforts. They raised the height of the waterfall, making it near impossible for even the highest jumpers to ever reach the top. A hundred years later, a lone koi that had continuously persevered finally made it to the top! This feat drew recognition from the gods. As a reward for its strength and determination, the gods turned the lone koi into a golden dragon. This legend is known as ‘The Dragon Gate’, and best explains why koi have become symbolic of perseverance through adversity.

The Ancestor of All Koi Carp

Adult black carp underwater
According to legend, all koi are descended from a common black carp that was presented to Confucius. Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee / CC BY-SA

Another legend tells the story of a common black carp, from which all koi are descended. Referred to as a ‘magoi’, this black carp was presented to Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher, in 533 B.C. It was given to him by King Shoko of Ro as a gift to commemorate the birth of Confucius’ son. From this black carp arose all koi which the Chinese eventually raised in their rice paddies and used as food.  

Koi Symbolism in Japan

Koi fish at a fair
Japanese growers began to breed colorful varieties of koi fish during WWII. t-konno, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was in Niigata, Japan where koi were first raised in ponds a thousand years ago. One harsh winter, Japanese farmers were unable to raise crops for food. As a consequence, they had to look for other forms of food production that could sustain their families. This caused them to raise koi in ponds that they built right next to their homes. In these enclosed ponds, specific colors and patterns became genetically selected for. Occasionally, red, blue, and white mutations arose.

It wasn’t until WWII, however, that Japanese growers began to breed colorful varieties, or Nishikigoi, as a hobby. Koi fish grew so appealing that they became popularized as a gift for the emperor. In 1914, Emperor Hirohito had an imperial palace moat that became the home of many koi from the Japanese people. This moat began to attract visitors from all over the world, resulting in a widespread fondness for this emblematic fish.

In Japan, koi carp are symbolic of samurai warriors. The perseverance of koi as they swim upward in rivers is likened to samurai bravery. It is believed that when koi are caught, they face the sword as samurai warriors do – by lying still and accepting death with courage. The Japanese also echo the Chinese myth of the golden dragon. They have a popular saying – ‘koi no taki-nobori’ – which translates to “koi climbing the rapids”. This signifies that strength and determination will allow one to conquer all obstacles.

Color, Number, and Symbol Association

Two koi feeding in a pond
Different varieties of koi are symbolic of different things, for example, gold koi represent financial prosperity and success in business. Gary Houston, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Koi can represent different aspects of life, based on their colors. Officially, there are now 16 varieties of Nishikigoi, with each type having distinct colors that are symbolic of something special. One of the most popular ones is Kohaku, which is notable for being white-bodied and having bright red dorsal spots. This coloration represents success at work, along with strength and power. Red spots also distinguish matriarchal koi, emphasizing love and energy. In contrast, black koi represent masculinity and patriarchal positions. Gold and silver koi are often sought for as they represent financial prosperity and success in business. Tranquility is said to be generated by blue-colored koi, which also symbolize the role of the son in a family.

Moreover, koi have special associations with cultural symbols and auspicious numbers. Feng shui beliefs dictate that the number of koi you have in your pond or aquarium must be decided upon based on your desires in life. The most auspicious number of koi to have in one set-up is nine, as this is said to represent prosperity, attainment, and completion of tasks. Having five koi fish is said to help one attain the 5 Blessings, which are love, a long life, good health, wealth, and a peaceful natural death. Two koi symbolize a balance between good and bad energy, or yin and yang. The black and white sides of the symbol are likened to a pair of harmoniously swimming koi, with the circle on each side representing the watchful eye of the fish. 

Religious Beliefs About Koi

Koi pond next to the Nemichi shrine in Japan
One of the most notable koi ponds is Monet’s Pond next to the Nemichi shrine in Japan. Hmori1960.earthbound, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Spiritual in nature, some beliefs about koi are deeply rooted in religion. Koi have become a popular Buddhist symbol for courage and harmony. In the way that Buddhists focus on the goal of enlightenment amidst chaos, koi are represented in mythology as beings that stay focused enough to succeed. Shinto shrines in Japan have also embraced the symbolism of koi. Beautiful koi ponds are often found throughout their gardens and are said to be tranquil places to reflect upon marriage and faithfulness. One shrine that has become notable for its koi pond, which looks like a Monet painting, is the Nemichi Shrine in Gifu Prefecture.

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